Texas Traveler: Haunted Austin
Photo by Brittanie Shey
The state capitol holds many secrets gleaned throughout its long history as a center for settlement, trade and politics. Here are a few of our favorite spooky places in Austin.
The Driskill Hotel
Often cited as one of the most haunted buildings in Texas, The Driskill opened in 1886 as one of the most lush and expensive hotels in the country, and certainly the nicest in Texas. What was meant to be the finest hotel West of the Mississippi suffered from its own hubris: it closed within six months due to the exorbitant cost of a stay there. Cattle baron and entrepreneur Jesse Driskill later lost his hotel in a poker game. The building change hands several times, eventually becoming a meeting place for political elite and Austin high society.
Several ghosts are said to haunt the building, including a young girl who chases a ball down the lobby stairs. Phantom musicians are heard playing upstairs, and ghosts apparently hand out in both bathrooms on the ground floor.
In 1999, according to one story, a woman from Houston was in Austin for her wedding. Her fiancé called the ceremony off at the last minute, so the woman took revenge on him Blu Cantrell-style by spending thousands of dollars at Austin's finest boutiques on the his credit cards. She came back to the hotel, arms loaded down with shopping bags, went into her room, and promptly shot herself in the stomach, using a pillow as a silencer. Her body wasn't discovered for three days.
Visitors claims to see her riding the elevator, still carrying her shopping bags, but we have our doubts. If the story is true, no version we've heard ever mentions her name. And the suicide happened recently enough in a famous enough hotel that we'd expect to find some record of it in the Statesman, but no dice. The Houston Bride's room is reported alternately as being either 27 or 29, if you're pondering a stay.
Incidentally, since the hotel is at 6th and Brazos it's a popular spot for performers. Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde has supposedly reported experiencing a ghost when she stayed there, one who turned the lights of her room off and on repeatedly while she tried to sleep after a Concrete Blonde gig. But who can trust her? She does have a thing for vampires.
The story of Josiah Wilbarger is one of the most disturbing and well-known Texas legends. Wilbarger was a schoolteacher-turned-colonist who was recruited by Stephen F. Austin to help settle Austin's Colony. While on a surveying expedition, Wilbarger and his party were ambushed by Comanche indians. Two men were killed early on, Wilbarger was wounded by a shot through the neck, and two other men managed to escape with minor injuries. The Comanches scalped the two dead men and then Wilbarger, apparently not realizing he was still alive. Wilbarger then spent the night under a pecan tree, naked of both clothing and hair.
Meanwhile, the two surviving members of his party hauled ass to Hornsby Bend, a nearby settlement, where they told the story of the attack to Rueben Hornsby and his wife Sarah. Rueben and the men set out the next morning to find and bury the bodies, found Wilbarger alive, and brought him back home, where Sarah Hornsby nursed him back to health. He lived for 11 years after the scalping, wearing a specially-made hat to cover his scarred head.
It is not unheard of to survive a scalping though it's certainly unusual. (Click here for a picture.) But here's where Josiah's story gets weird. While drifting in and out of consciousness under the pecan tree, Josiah was visited by his sister, dressed in all white, who told him not to lose hope, that help was on the way. This was odd because Sister Margaret lived in Missouri. At the same time, Sarah Hornsby was awakened several times throughout the night with the strong conviction that Josiah Wilbarger had survived the attack. So strong were her visions that she woke the whole house of men and begged them to go back to the site. Several months later, during his recuperation, Josiah received notice via mail that his sister had died a day before he was attacked.
Hornsby Bend, on Farm-to-Market Road 969 just west of Highway 130, is still home to the awesome old Hornsby Family Cemetery. There is a marker indicating the home where Josiah Wilbarger spent his recovery. Wilbarger's ancestors apparently created a granite market to indicate the spot where the attack took place, at what is now 51st Street and Old Manor Road in Austin, but Texas Traveler was unable to find it.
Zilker Park's Moonlight Tower
Fifteen of Austin's 31 original moonlight towers still stand, including one in Zilker Park which gets transformed into a Christmas tree every year. The towers are on the National Register of Historic Places, and Austin is the only city in the world who still operated a moonlight tower system (though the lighting method has changed from carbon-arc lamps to mercury vapor).
The lamps were constructed in 1894 and 1895, but how they came to light the city is a legend unto itself.
In December 1884, a young housemaid named Mollie Smith was found raped and killed in her bedroom. This murder started a chain of killings that terrorized the city for a full year, even gaining attention in papers like the New York Times. In the end, eight women died at the hands of what author O. Henry (who was living in Austin at the time) dubbed the Servant Girl Annihilators.
The murders stopped on Christmas Eve 1885 and the killer was never found, though some people posit that he jumped the pond and resumed his work there. The murders led to a lot of changes in the city, including new hires at the police department and the building of the 31 towers to light the city, which due to bureaucracy were not completed until ten years after the last murder.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.